An economist walks into a bar Robert Litan TEDxKC

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“Nga nguyen reviewer queenie lee. So there are these two guys that walk into a a bar no i m not going to go there it could be the beginning a joke. But i really want it to be the introduction to the notion of artificial scarcity and you ll see why in a minute so let s go back to the bar. The first guy he approaches.

The first woman that he sees offers her a drink she turns him down. He then decides to work his way down the bar and of course. All the women watching this they see what he s up to and they all turn him down now our guy. I m going to call him the anti hero.

He hasn t learned from this experience in the real world. So he decides to go to the virtual. World he goes to the internet and joins cupidcom. And he tries the same technique and sure enough with the same result they all turn him down so our anti hero is in.

Trouble but you know what cupidcom. Is in trouble. Too and the. Reason they are is that the women who have joined cupidcom are being inundated with offers from men for dates.

They get turned off. They quit and as they quit men quit. Cupid is in trouble. Who are you going to call to solve this problem.

No. The answer is more obvious than ghostbusters laughter. You call an economist laughter. Don t laugh you call.

An economist laughter in fact you call two of them this is muriel niederle of stanford and dan ariely of duke and they ve spent a lot of time studying the problem of artificial scarcity and abundance in the online dating context. Which is the reason cupid called them up and they wanted to know how to fix their problem. And the two economists said they had an idea that was as simple as it was profound just put a sharp limit on the number of date offers that men could make to women each month. This is the notion of artificial scarcity taking what looks like an abundant resource.

Which is date offers and artificially constraining them and the economist said to cupid that if you do this the men will take their offer seriously they ll look at more than just the women s pictures. And they actually look at their profiles and the women will know this and they ll be more likely to accept date proposals artificial scarcity help save cupidcom and other dating sites that copied the technique today online dating is a two billion dollar industry in north america. Alone now i want to talk about a lot more than online dating and artificial scarcity. Much bigger topic.

I want to try to show to you how economists and their ideas have contributed to the rise of the entire internet economy and to some of the iconic companies within it i m sure many of you are familiar with the notion of name your price travel that was invented by priceline well name your price travel was really not the key to their success. Because if you could name your price..


What price would you bid zero right or one or two and obviously. The airlines or the hotel charges would not accept the offer the key to priceline was not their great advertising. It wasn t the fact that you could do searches online. No the real key to priceline success by the way.

It s a 60 billion dollar company market cap. Today. The real key is they make you this proposition. They say that if you bid a particular price for a hotel room or a flight and priceline decides to accept it you re bound to pay it this is called the conditional price offer and in basically what it does it induces.

You as the traveler to take your offer seriously in the same way that the artificial restriction on the dating proposals that cupidcom. Did for men. So who is the brilliant guy behind the conditional price offer laughter. He s a smart guy.

But captain kirk was not the inventor of the idea he was the pitchman and he still is for priceline. No the real genius behind priceline was this guy jay walker jay. Studied economics. As an undergraduate at cornell.

And he actually listened and thought two steps beyond what his lecturers told him at cornell and came up with the idea of the conditional price offer. Which led to priceline and revolutionized the entire travel industry in the us. I have another example. It s one that you re also very familiar with it s a search page at google.

It could be in any other search engine. And what i want you to pay attention to is that right hand side the ads over there google collects about 50 billion dollars a year from advertisers. Large and small seeking placement on that right hand side they auction off the sites. But that s not how the system started because when google was launched online advertising was in its infancy and google believe it or not went door to door advertiser to advertiser trying to get them to place an ad next to a search term highly laborious.

You quickly can see this is not going to scale as the number of searches exploded on google. And so the founders of google asked two young engineers eric veach and salar kamangar to come up with an automatic system that would solve this problem well they were instinctively attracted to auctions. But they were thinking about another problem that is if they auctioned off the sites. They feared that the advertisers would bid a very low price.

And then incrementally raised their prices just a little bit and keep the auctions going forever. And if this happened and a lot of searches were also going on at the same time the whole site would crash so as an engineering solution they came up with this idea that the winning auction or the winning placement will be the price. The second highest price that was bid plus. One penny this would cut off the auctions.

Really simplify. The process and in the process also solve another problem called the winner s curse..


I m sure many of you have participated in auctions may have regretted winning. Because you felt like you paid too much pretty obvious point. But the ceo of google. At the time.

Eric schmidt. Still wasn t sold on the second price auction as the way to go until he ran into this man totally by accident in a party. This is hal varian at the time. He was dean of the information sciences school in berkeley.

And a world. Leading expert on auctions. And also the internet. Schmidt.

Asked varian does this second price auction. Make any sense. Why not the first price and varian pondered the question and came back to schmidt. And he said.

You know those two engineers. They have reinvented what this guy came up with this is william vickrey. He was an economist at colombia. Who proved mathematically that the second price auction was the ideal solution to the winner s curse.

And you know what that won him the nobel prize in economics in 1996. Well now you re. Eric schmidt. You think well economists.

They may be able to help google. So he persuades hal varian to leave his tenured position at berkeley and join google as its first chief economist varian. Then goes on to hire an army of statisticians and economists who helped refine the online ad auction. Process and also develop other services for the mountain view.

Giant. You know they say that imitation is the best form of flattery well guess who was watching microsoft from up north. Their chief competitor or would be competitor microsoft. They wanted their own hal varian.

And they got her. This..


Is. Susan. Athey. Susan.

Is a rock star economist at stanford world leading expert in auction. Theory. And she splits her time teaching. With also working as an economist at microsoft.

I have a third example. It s bigger than the first two it s the entire business of web retailing. It s a 300 billion dollar industry in the united states alone and you all know the poster child of web. Retailing it s amazoncom.

Now many of you may think that amazon s success is due to its fantastic system of warehousing and inventory control. It s able to basically send out all that stuff that you order online. But you know amazon and other web retailers would not be as successful as they are without a highly flexible transportation system that actually would deliver all that stuff and guess who helped bring that system to reality economists because back in 1980. When jeff bezos was just a teenager.

The airline and the trucking industries were heavily regulated every fare and every route that they charged or they flew or they drove had to be approved by the government in fact there was a rule that set to an airline that owned a trucking outfit. It couldn t deliver merchandise more than 20 miles away from the airport at which the merchandise landed this rule was obviously in place to protect other truckers from competition. Which of course was the whole point of airline and trucking regulation in the first place that s why economists long opposed it but they also opposed it for another reason. There are lots of airlines and trucking firms.

They re not natural monopolies in the same way that a local utility is that needs regulation in order to prevent price gouging. No airlines and trucks should never have been regulated and three of the economists who were most insistent about this are in this picture. Michael levine. Alfred kahn and darius gaskins and trust.

Me. There were many more who have been writing for decades that we ought to get rid of this crazy system well there were two politicians courageous politicians who finally listened to these guys and women and persuaded congress in 1978 and 1980 respectively to dismantle the system of airline and trucking regulation against the stiff opposition of course of those industries and you may not recall but prices fell after deregulation. But more importantly for my story is that deregulation unleashed vigorous competition between the two giants of the transportation industry ups and fedex. They went on to develop a highly flexible and efficient transportation system.

That was ideal for the internet economy. So that 20 years later when jeff bezos and other web retailers came along they were able to tap into and use this system in fact. Jeff bezos. If you re watching this you should send a thank you note to three of the economists.

That i showed before and many of the others who made your fortune possible i want to conclude with one final example has nothing to do with the internet. Unless you want to count the 32 million people who play some form of online fantasy sports..


I mentioned sports because i m a sports nut and i want to talk to you about moneyball. I m sure many of you have seen the movie. It s based on a book yes go ahead. And applaud fantastic book and movie and it is written by this man michael lewis.

Who by the way i think he s probably one of the best non fiction writers in america or the world for that matter and moneyball as you know was about billy beane. The general manager of the oakland as who built a great baseball team on a shoestring budget. But moneyball really wasn t a traditional baseball movie. In the same way.

That bull durham or field of dreams. Was you know the real hero of moneyball was this guy now many of you may not recognize him. But i submit to you he had as big influence on baseball as hank aaron or babe ruth. Because he applied economics and statistics to showing how it s possible to produce winning baseball.

He invented a field called sabermetrics that was used by billy beane and other baseball teams to build their rosters in fact. It is used throughout professional baseball not just there sabermetrics is used by professional basketball teams football teams and even hockey teams have people like bill james on their staff economic thinking has revolutionized sports. You know in the course of my career. I ve had a good fortune to meet many many people in the business world.

But unfortunately from my perspective. Too many of them have no respect for economists they say we ve never met a payroll. We meaning the economists. What do they know well economists helped build the internet economy economists help make it possible for amazon and other web retailers to deliver all that stuff that you order to your doorstep.

Efficiently and promptly. 24 7. Economists shape. The system of online advertising.

Especially online auctions. Economists make it possible for you to get five star hotels. At three star prices. Economists may even have made it possible for you to have a date and conceivably for you to have met your spouse.

I think economists deserve some respect laughter applause that answers it don t you thank you very much laughter applause. ” ..

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